This day in baseball history: Mets roar into first place

The New York Mets’ come from behind victory over the Chicago Cubs in early July of 1969 left the Mets believing they could catch the Cubs and win the NL East. When the Mets took a series from the Cubs later that month to pull within 3.5 games of the Cubs, they believed this even more.

After that, though, the Mets went into a tailspin. By mid-August, they trailed the Cubs by 9.5 games, and were in third place, a game behind St. Louis, the defending NL champs.

However, in the second half of August the Mets went 14-3. When September began, they were within 4 games of the Cubs. Everyone else was out of the race.

On September 8, when the Cubs came to New York for a two-game series against the Mets, their lead was down to 2.5 games. The Cubs were reeling, having just lost 4 games in a row.

The series opener was a pitching duel between Jerry Koosman and Bill Hands. Koosman was a Minnesota bred farm boy who, in contrast to fellow Mets ace Tom Seaver, wore his passion on his sleeve. It was said that Koosman, tough as nails, often drew the opponent’s best pitcher on the theory that the Mets shouldn’t “burn” Seaver, their ace.

Was there any truth to this? I don’t know. In this series, it was Seaver who drew Ferguson Jenkins, Chicago’s ace. But Hands was one of the NL’s best starters of the late 1960s.

In the bottom of the first inning, Leo Durocher wanted to send a message. He ordered Hands, a sinker ball pitcher, to throw a knockdown pitch at the head of Tommie Agee, who led off for the Mets. Mets skipper Gil Hodges didn’t have to tell Koosman what to do. Koosman drilled the next Chicago batter he faced — Ron Santo, the heart and soul of the team.

Hands retaliated by throwing at Koosman’s head. Koosman responded by taunting Hands for not throwing hard enough to hurt anyone.

Agee had his own way of retaliating. In the bottom of the third, with two out, he homered off of Hands with Bud Harrelson aboard. 2-0 Mets.

The Cubs finally got to Koosman in the top of the sixth. Three straight singles — by Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, and Billy Williams — and a sacrifice fly by Santo evened the score. Koosman had to retire Randy Hundley with two out and runners on first and third to keep it even.

But the Mets went right back to work in the bottom of the inning. Agee continued to torment Hands, this time with a lead off double. He scored on a single by the next batter, Wayne Garrett. to give the Mets a 3-2 lead.

The play at the plate was close and controversial. With no outs, third base coach Eddie Yost might have been better advised not to send Agee. But umpire Satch Davidson called the speedster from Mobile, Alabama safe.

Koosman breezed through the seventh inning. But Beckert and Williams began the eighth with singles. Koosman, though, got a double-play ball from Santo and then struck out Ernie Banks. That was truly clutch pitching.

Koosman closed out the game by striking out three Cubs in the ninth, sandwiched around a one out single by Hundley. The Chicago lead was down to 1.5 games.

The next day was the Ferguson Jenkins-Tom Seaver matchup. Both were 20 game winners in 1969. Seaver was the better pitcher that year, though, and he possessed a hidden advantage in the September 9 game. He had made fewer starts and pitched fewer innings than Jenkins. Seaver, the younger pitcher, had started 31 games. Jenkins, overworked by Durocher, had started 38.

It showed. The Mets jumped on Jenkins for two runs in the first inning and two more in the fourth. A Ken Boswell double drove in the first two. A Donn Clendenon home run produced the next pair.

Seaver didn’t even need the Clendenon homer. He held the Cubs to one run and five hits, as the Mets cruised to a 7-1 victory.

There was more to the game than this unexciting account suggests. In the top of the fourth inning, with Beckert on second and Williams at the plate, a black cat appeared on the field. It walked behind Santo, who was in the on-deck circle, and headed to the Chicago dugout. According to Santo, the black cat “looked right at Leo [Durocher] and went underneath the stands.”

The Cubs were well on their way to blowing the pennant before the black cat showed up. But their decline accelerated thereafter. Counting the September 9 game, the Cubs went 8-13 the rest of the way.

However, they still were in first place on the morning of September 10. But on this day in baseball history, they would finally relinquish the lead.

In Philadelphia, a late inning Chicago collapse led to defeat at the hands of the Phillies. Reliever Phil Regan, overused by Durocher, gave up three runs without getting an out in the eighth inning. Philadelphia prevailed 6-2.

In New York, the Mets faced the expansion Montreal Expos in a double header. In the first game, Montreal’s Mike Wegener matched Jim McAndrew almost pitch for pitch for 11 innings.

With the score tied 2-2 in the top of the 12th, and Ron Taylor now pitching for the Mets, Gene Mauch pulled Wegener for pinch hitter Kevin Collins, who had started the season with the Mets. Collins delivered a hit that looked like it might score Remy Hermoso with the go-ahead run. However, Tommy Agee gunned down Hermoso at the plate to preserve the tie.

Mauch brought on Bill Stoneman, normally a starter, to pitch the bottom of the 12th. Stoneman retired the first two Mets, but Cleon Jones singled and Rod Gaspar walked. Ken Boswell then ended the contest with a single to center field.

The second game featured young fireballer Nolan Ryan for the Mets and Howie Reed, more of a reliever than a starter, for the Expos. It was no contest.

The Mets jumped on Reed and Dan McGinn for 6 runs in the third inning. Ryan pitched a complete game, giving up only one run and three hits. He struck out 11 and improved his record to 6-1.

The Mets had gained 1.5 games in a single day. They now led the Cubs by a game, and would never trail them again in 1969.